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A bumpy ride

busI had been content to let Calling Caldecott’s enlightening discussion about A Fine Dessert speak for itself, and the subsequent publication of A Birthday Cake for George Washington a year later was more than anything a spectacular example of bad timing–by the time A Fine Dessert was gathering outrage, A Birthday Cake was well on its way to publication.

While the Horn Book Magazine gave A Fine Dessert a fine (and fair) review, I have never personally been the book’s biggest fan. It is too much of a grandma-trap for me, looking like it would be altogether  right at home in Restoration Hardware, stacked invitingly next to a artfully disarrayed pile of artisanal throw rugs in subtle shades of lavender. I imagine that it is this coziness that makes the book’s inclusion of a slave family so disquieting to so many.

Even if A Fine Dessert had never been published, I can’t imagine the Magazine would have chosen A Birthday Cake for George Washington for review. If others were troubled by A Fine Dessert‘s positioning slavery as just another selection in a candy-box history, I was affronted by A Birthday Cake‘s relentlessly grinning slaves cheerful pitching in so their owner could have his cake. Those are Ted Rand-level teeth.

So that’s what I think of those two books. What troubles me more than either of them is the subsequent reactions of the various involved parties. After A Fine Dessert got into hot water, illustrator Sophie Blackall attempted to defend the book in a blog post and gamely engaged her commenters. Good for her. I was less happy with Emily Jenkins’ statement, posted as a comment on the Calling Caldecott blog and elsewhere: “I have come to understand that my book, while intended to be inclusive and truthful and hopeful, is racially insensitive. I own that and am very sorry. For lack of a better way to make reparations, I donated the fee I earned for writing the book to We Need Diverse Books.” It bugs me that she threw Blackall under the bus and spoke of the book as if it were hers alone; it bothers me that she felt no call to explain her change of heart; it disgusts me that she uses such a historically loaded term as “reparations” to describe her donation. (And “fee”? What does she mean? Her advance? Who gets the royalties?)

While Random House, the publisher of A Fine Dessert, was conspicuously absent in the debate about the book, I have to give props to Scholastic editor Andrea Pinkney for her defense of A Birthday Cake. And, more credit to her, she did not wait for critics to pounce but posted her thoughts about the book the day after it was published. But while I acknowledge Pinkney’s courage and integrity, I thought it was unfortunate that in defending A Birthday Cake she also threw A Fine Dessert under the bus, saying that the two books are “vastly different” but never explaining how. (I mean, the books are vastly different, but not in the ways they do and do not address the whitewashing of slavery.) Incidentally, Andrea and I had breakfast in New York just before Christmas, and we talked about the similar–yet vastly different, if you will–reactions to Pat and Fred McKissack’s Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters, published by Scholastic in 1994. There’s an article in that if anyone wants to write it.

But now it appears that higher heads than Andrea’s have prevailed at Scholastic and A Birthday Cake for George Washington has been recalled, something I can only remember happening when Random House published a Charlotte Zolotow title under Louise Fitzhugh’s name and Lerner published a Holocaust memoir that was subsequently shown to be fabricated and/or delusional. I believe this is a mistake. It shows a lack of respect for their author, illustrator, and editor–and for readers, who, given the reviews of this title in Kirkus and SLJ, and the lively discussion of the book’s merits and flaws (mostly flaws) on the internet, would hardly be taken unawares. Just take your lumps, Scholastic, and learn from your mistakes. It isn’t the first time a misguided book has been published and it won’t be the last. By caving in to public pressure–which, given you know no more about the book now than you did when you decided to publish it, is exactly what is happening–you demonstrate a craven lack of faith in your own standards. Had A Birthday Cake for George Washington remained in the public arena, along with A Fine Dessert and the many other books about slavery in this country, it would in turn become part of the children’s-literature record, an object lesson for those books as yet unwritten. That’s how books get better.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. I just want to beg people: If you read Roger please also read Edi Campbell and other bloggers of color. Reading While White does have a post coming as well, but folks, let’s be conscious of whose voices we’re privileging in this conversation, please? Here’s Edi:
    And in response to this, Roger I’ll just say: According to you, the only way for people to preserve their integrity is to never change their minds and never apologize. That may be your take on how the world operates, but not everyone is as stubborn as you and I, and maybe you and I should learn from them.

  2. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Oh, hells bells I change my mind and apologize for mistakes every day. Jenkins may well have genuinely changed her mind but her apology reads as if it were written through gritted teeth. I’m-sorry-please-shut-up-and-leave-me-alone-okay?

  3. Fran Manushkin says:

    I’d like to know what book Charlotte Zolotow published under Louise Fitzhugh’s name? This is news to me.

  4. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    K.T. Horning will know all the details, but it involved a CZ manuscript that had been sent to Fitzhugh as a possible illustration job. Louise either passed or never responded and the book was illustrated by someone else; years later Louise’s copy of the ms. was found among her papers after her death and the publisher thought she had written it. I remember CZ remarking with mock-horror that they had EDITED her.

  5. Oh I know what you’re talking about!!! Something about a friend next door moving in… Or away… MY FRIEND JOHN??

  6. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Yup, that one.

  7. Also interested to learn about the Fitzhugh/Zolotow story. Thanks for explaining, Roger.

  8. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    Posts on the topic by bloggers of color, Mitali Perkins also has a very thoughtful one (click on her Blog tab):

  9. I’m compiling a list of discussions at the bottom of my initial post on this topic. Right now, I’ve got 16.

  10. Debbie Reese, the link you posted is not working, can you fix/repost?

    I have no inside information on conversations at Scholastic that led to the book being pulled, but I would say that Scholastic is indeed “taking its lumps and learning from its mistakes” as you want them to, Roger, even though they have withdrawn the book. EVERYONE in children’s publishing is watching and learning from the response to the book. Scholastic will lose their entire investment of money and time, and will also spend plenty of time addressing the controversy. And when you asked about Emily Jenkin’s royalties for A Fine Dessert? I am confident there won’t be any: the controversy around the book will have stopped sales dead in the water.

    I am not commenting on either book editorially–there are plenty of people who have done that already. But I will say, if readers haven’t seen them, the Amazon user reviews for A Birthday Cake make stimulating reading. Here are a couple of excerpts: “If Black Americans had the political, economic and social power of the Euro-American Jew, the author, illustrator and publishers would be facing a multi-million dollar lawsuit right now.” Or “…Though some of [the author’s] other titles are fun, such as ‘My captor my captor!’ and ‘Tonto, the Red Skin Cowboy.'”

  11. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    Wow. NEVER read the comments!

  12. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Actually, Katie Bircher reminded me of the Holocaust-themed LET THE CELEBRATIONS BEGIN! which met a similar i more tempered reception. But all the comparisons people are making to horrific made-up Holocaust stories suggest to me that they have not read A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON, which tries mightily to convey Hercules’ situation. And those who say that slaves never smiled put me in mind of Ayn Rand’s HUAC testimony, in which she said that the film SONG OF RUSSIA was inaccurate because nobody ever smiled in the Soviet Union.

  13. Allie Jane Bruce, you used the word “privileging” where I would have used the word “considering” or even just “reading.” Surely Roger has qualifications to offer thoughtful opinion on the brouhaha. Skin color shouldn’t be the primary factor as to who’s worthy to weigh in, should it? I’ve seen some pretty ignorant remarks on this subject from people across races. If you are not discounting his opinion based on his skin color, why post that remark here at all?

  14. ChristineTB says:

    While Randomhouse didn’t make a public statement, I made my concerns known and had a very good exchange with them (I am not published by Randomhouse for the record, nor affiliated with them). It was me talking as a writer and as a concerned mother/purchaser of a book about how A FINE DESERT could have been better presented to avoid the backlash – even if a slave scene were necessary. The initiated the request for dialogue, not me. Sophie Blackall and I also had an exchange and it was productive and respectful. She’s a class act.

    They are taking steps to do better.

    One thing Scholastic should do is hiring back the experienced Black editors they let go over the years. If not as staff, as consultants. Those editors would not ever have let this get through like this.

  15. “One thing Scholastic should do is hiring back the experienced Black editors they let go over the years. If not as staff, as consultants. Those editors would not ever have let this get through like this.”

    The editor of the George Washington book is an African American.

  16. Anne Ursu says:

    Emily Jenkins is one of the classiest people around, and one of the least likely ever to be pressured or bullied into anything. She is a woman of great intelligence and integrity, and if she takes this step than I assure you it was not through gritted teeth. She did explain her change of heart right there in the first line; she listened and understood. Emily has done what we dominant culture folk in our business have so much trouble doing so often–acknowledging that we have absolutely no idea what it’s like to grow up as a person of color in this country and thus if people tell us we injured them it is incumbent upon us to listen. I can’t even fathom how painful all of this was for her, and yet instead of getting defensive and focusing on her own feelings and intentions, she showed the advocates who are so used to being ignored, mocked, and dismissed that she was listening to them, and that their voices mattered. This field would be in a lot better shape, and would be serving our readers so much better, if more could do the same. We could actually be making things better instead of fighting this same fight again and again. I hope I could act with half as much class in the same situation.

    It’s puzzling to me that the same people who so fiercely argue for the good intentions and good hearts of the creators in these circumstances are suddenly dubious of Emily’s intentions and heart when she decides to apologize, nay “disgusted” by her word choice when doing so. Perhaps, then, these repeated dismissals/pushbacks against the critiques by marginalized voices aren’t actually about protecting the creator’s feelings at all, but speaking to something about our own fragility?

  17. Roger Sutton says:

    Anne, I’m happy to be wrong about Emily’s intention, and I apologize if I read too much into her brief statement. I still believe she was wrong to let Blackall twist in the wind and I disagree with her decision to publically offer money as penance for her error.

  18. Roger, I had forgotten about CHRISTMAS IN THE BIG HOUSE, CHRISTMAS IN THE QUARTERS until right now, but I remember reading it a few times with my parents when I was a kid. Thanks for the throwback memory!

    Even though my parents are not black (I was adopted), they made a great effort to raise me with an awareness of my blackness, not just of my African American heritage, so by the time I came across that book, I think I had read or watched a decent amount of other depictions of slavery. I remember thinking that it was interesting and a relief to see that people who suffered all day, every day had had a small moment of respite, but I didn’t forget or ignore that it was far from what characterized their lives overall. But now as an adult, I wonder how many non-black kids I grew up with read that book, and if it was their first or only exposure to narratives of slavery. In the meantime, I was reading (and watching) Nightjohn and seeing a man have his fingers chopped off for daring to read and write; playing with my American Girl doll, Addy, and remembering that no matter where my imagination placed her when she was in my hands and in my house, she had once been forcefed worms by an overseer; watching my dad rework his ninth grade English syllabus and assignments around Brother Future, which he had students watch every year; feeling like maybe I should take up quilting in order to feel kinship with Sweet Clara but knowing that any white person who saw me do that would just find it quaint and cute and lack any understanding of context; reading and rereading Harriet Jacobs because, like just about any kid, the idea of keeping a diary while squirreled away was appealing, but also being ever-aware that I was reading a true story.

    I ramble, sure, but only to point out that this conversation indeed privileges white voices and what they think they can get out of it.

    To be sure, I hella appreciate white allies in such discussions, and I do think talking about white readers of these books is of utmost importance, because we are raising future white supremacists OR future white antiracists, and we should decide which one we want. So any activist effort that wants to take down racism is A-OK with me.

    BUT it is sure taking a long time, as it did with A FINE DESSERT, for anyone to bring up the fact that black kids in America have never NOT been told about slavery, never NOT been taught to be hypervigilant about their presence inside a black body. What do books like these do to THEM?

  19. Hope, I didn’t discount Roger’s opinion at all–I actually responded to him. Don’t want to speak for Roger here, but I feel pretty confident that if he felt I was discounting him because he is white, he’d tell me, there’s no need for you to do so.

    As it happens, I agree with Roger when he says this: “It shows a lack of respect for their author, illustrator, and editor… Just take your lumps, Scholastic, and learn from your mistakes.” I agree with him, and I agree with Edi’s post that I pushed above. And you know that makes me crazy…

  20. Out of curiosity, I checked Amazon just now to see what’s happened to A FINE DESSERT. It seems to be selling quite well, for whatever reasons. No comment.

  21. I agree – Emily Jenkins was bullied into her apology and left Sophie Blackall to explain and stand up for their joint decisions. Blackall explains her decisions on her blog – they were carefully considered. I would say explain, not defend – as that implies there is something that needs defending!

    The most unfortunate part of Scholastic pulling A Birthday Cake… is that many of are unable to comment intelligently on it as we haven’t seen it.

  22. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    Of course, not having seen the book doesn’t stop people from commenting on it 🙂 2500 people (did they all read the book? mayyyybe…) signed the petition: “Tell Scholastic: STOP Promoting Racist, “Happy Slave” Book to Children!” Well, when you put it like that, I might’ve too — who wouldn’t? I’m a big fan of, but I wonder who would’ve signed the petition: “Publicly, implicitly rebuke a powerful woman of color and her creative team about a book you haven’t read”?

  23. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I am being too hard on Emily Jenkins. She and Sophie Blackall were subjected to a barrage of criticism from social media, some of it thoughtful, much of it malevolent. As someone recently accused of having the fresh blood of black children on my hands, I should have known better.

    And mclicious, thank YOU for the reminder of Addy. The appearance of that doll and book series gave rise to much of the same kind of discussion back in the early 90s. “Why did she have to be a slave?” was a big question; I remember Ginny Kruse saying she wished the company had set its first black character against a 1960s school integration background.

  24. I have to chime in here and say that Emily Jenkins is the last person in the world who could be “bullied” by a critique of her work. As Anne Ursu says above, Emily listened to the criticism and responded to it without making the issue about her own good intentions and feelings. And I disagree that she threw Sophie Blackall under the bus; the fact that these two artists addressed the controversy differently early on doesn’t mean that Jenkins blamed Blackall for the book’s problems (and we’ll never be privy to their behind-the-scenes discussions of the controversy).

    If anyone left them both twisting in the wind, it’s their publisher. As Ebony Thomas has noted, it’s easy to pick apart the actions/characters of individual artists/authors and much more difficult to discuss systemic issues with publishing and with the way we present slavery in books for children.

  25. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Hi Laura (and congrats on the Printz!);

    I agree that we don’t know what went on between author and illustrator, and that much of what went on at Random House and Scholastic will probably remain a mystery. When i first contemplated writing about A FINE DESSERT last year (but chickened out) I asked Random House for a statement, which follows (I don’t know if it appeared anywhere else):

    “The creation of A FINE DESSERT was a collaborative experience that
    involved many conversations and choices. One family was chosen to
    represent each century. The unique creative challenges of representing
    each time period in just a few spreads are noted by the author and
    illustrator at the end of the book. From the very beginning, it was our
    goal to create and publish a book that parents, teachers, and librarians
    could use as a springboard for deeper, meaningful conversations about our
    history.” –Anne Schwartz and Lee Wade, VPs and publishers, Schwartz and Wade Books

    It’s a well-groomed statement, certainly, if not exactly a rousing show of support. Darn, that passive voice.

  26. Anonymous says:

    “Ask, not for whom the bell tolls…”

    I’m just in shock here that there is so much joy and applause that a gigantic book and entertainment company shut down the voices of that rarity in the business: An all-female, all-non-white team of people who created a picture book. Even when the storm broke, this team stood by its work. It did not break as a unit. It was content. That so many people in the loud crowd cheering the book’s recall as some kind of victory are part of the same non-dominant minorities, and others, as the creative team, is astonishing. Women of color squashed down by a male-dominated corporate structure. Sounds familiar. The only difference is, most of the time the people are on the side of the women. I sure am, even as I have major questions about the particular product of their labor.

  27. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    Well put, Anonymous. Meanwhile, picture books like “The Confederate Alphabet” slip on by, unremarked upon.

  28. Sam Bloom says:

    I’m sorry to come back to this point about Emily Jenkins being in the wrong, especially since Laura and Anne and others have already spoken to that, but besides think it is a head-scratcher (to put it mildly) that somehow Jenkins is in the wrong for how she saw her mistake and owned up to it, moreso I find it amazing how much people rush to Sophie Blackall’s defense in this situation. Don’t get me wrong, I am a *MONDO HUGE* fan of Blackall’s, but I disagree with her despite my uber-fandom. Do I respect her opinions and the way she defended herself? Absolutely. But for all who think she was “thrown under the bus” by Jenkins, or that Jenkins “left her out to dry,” or that Blackall was (insert your favorite euphemism for getting the shaft) by Jenkins… I don’t know, I get this weird vibe from folks, some of whom seem almost dogmatic in their defense. I’m having a hard time really explaining it, but there’s a phenomenon at play here that I can sense but not describe coherently. I wish I could put it into words; thankfully, Laura and Anne and others have done that to a certain extent much better than I could.

  29. Sam– thanks for your comment. For myself, I think there is a lot going on in those dynamics that relates to white womanhood, and those undercurrents are especially pronounced when the topic is slavery. (See also Daniel José Older’s discussion of his considerations before speaking on the panel about A Fine Dessert.) This is also part of what makes me most uncomfortable about the discrepancy in industry responses to A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington.

  30. Anne Ursu says:

    There are many things I think we, in the dominant culture, tend to miss in this conversation (I don’t mean about these books, specifically, but in general.) One is that it looks like abstract harm vs concrete harm—that a bunch of angry people are being so mean to these fabulous creators who we care about, over something abstract. But of course it’s not abstract at all. I think all of us in this business are devoted to the idea that books matter, that books are crucial to forming our kids, that they make culture and create citizens and allow kids the opportunity for a kind of affirmation that they can’t get anywhere else. And if someone is saying, Hey, this book hurts my kid on the basis of her marginalized identity—they are arguing about very concrete harm, of life and death importance. I am sure those who privilege the feelings of the creators (until they apologize, apparently) would be horrified to realize that what the people doing the critiquing see is that to this community, the creator’s feelings matter more than those of their kids. But that is what they see. Because they aren’t speaking abstractly, they aren’t just captious or mean or self-promoting, they are advocating for their children. They are telling us we in this business do things in our books that hurt their kids, they point these things out time and time again, and time and time again, we dismiss/insult/castigate them and privilege our own feelings (for isn’t that really what this focus on the creators is all about?) over their kids.

    And in criticizing Emily for the way she handled this in terms of her illustrator (which seems like a lot of projection since we don’t know what happened), we are erasing all of the people we can see that she did consider. Emily is telling us that the feelings and thoughts of the people doing the critiquing matter to her. She is saying their kids matter to her. And isn’t that fundamentally our job in this business? To focus on the kids? Emily’s apology was an act of a capacious heart.

    It is easier to dismiss these concerns as people being too angry/too picky/just plain mean, than to acknowledge that they are speaking from a place of knowledge and experience and pain. It is easier to focus on the intentions and hearts of the creators and to dismiss those of the people doing the critiquing out of hand than to realize that we unconsciously create books and love books that can cause hurt. Because to do the latter involves a fundamental rethinking of our attitude towards race, and it involves admitting that no matter how good our hearts are we are fundamentally ignorant about the experience so many people have in the world, and that we will mess up, and it involves realizing how everything in our culture teaches us to ignore the humanity of people outside dominant culture, how we are taught, again and again, to preserve the racial status quo. Just look at the way power coalesces every time we have this conversation.

    What if we didn’t dismiss these concerns out of hand? What if we decided we white people are not capable of seeing things about race and representation that POC are? What if we realized that making mistakes is an inevitable product of living in this society? What if we decided that everyone means well, that everyone cares passionately about kids, that people who are angry are angry because this happens again and again and they’re dismissed again and again, and that those who call out issues in books are doing so because they believe that books are essential to their kids’ ability to feel good about themselves and navigate the world?

    I think if we could all start there, we would have a way out of this mess.

  31. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Anne, as a children’s librarian by training, I have always been skeptical of claims that a particular book would harm a particular child, never mind children as a whole, or children of a particular ethnicity or gender. Moreover, I am hesitant to give anyone the right to speak on behalf of all adults, or those of a particular ethnicity or gender, when it comes to speaking of what “we” think will harm whichever child or children. (Think of Andrea Pinkney, an African American mother as well as an editor–does she believe A Birthday Cake for George Washington will hurt black children? I’m guessing not.)

    Instead, I believe those who claim that a book will hurt children are themselves projecting–they think children SHOULD be hurt by a given book because that book does not accord with the objector’s religious, social, or political mores. As we all know, this behavior is no respecter of race, gender, or political affiliation–everybody does it. In some cases it is sincere and sometimes it is cynical, but to my mind it is linked less to actual evidence of harm than it is to an adult’s desire that the world be seen by all in a particular way.

  32. Anonymous says:

    @Anne U, a few points in response to your eloquent and heartfelt post.

    1) There is little sympathy in the general public and the children’s book community for the positions argued by the author, the illustrator, and the editor in their respective defenses of A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON. Those arguments were made well and had integrity, but they were found wanting in the balance.

    2) The criticism of Emily Jenkins resonates in comparison with the unison of the A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON editorial team. On a purely factual basis Jenkins both changed her mind and broke rank. None of the Scholastic author-illustrator-editor team did, in the face of criticism at least as vitriolic as that aimed at Jenkins/Blackall. Quite the contrary. They stood by their words. Knowing who they are, I suspect they took others’ opinions into account and were not operating with closed ears. You wrote, “What if we decided we white people are not capable of seeing things about race and representation that POC are?” The answer is that we’ve have more teams like the A BIRTHDAY CAKE editorial team creating books that they stand behind.

    3) The BIRTHDAY CAKE team didn’t call for the book to be recalled. Their publisher did. I have to believe it was against the author/illustrator/editor wishes, considering their prior public statements.

    3) I’m taking a look at how power coalesced in this conversation. If you see it as maintaining the status quo, please explain, because I’m not tracking. I see a result that the vast majority of POC and PNOC people wanted.They got it fast, too. Days, not weeks. Whether that result is the right one — the cancellation of a book that offends, but which the editorial team stands behind — is also not being challenged much, even if it should be. Perhaps that conversation will happen in depth in the future, perhaps not.

    Your posts are always eloquent. I look forward to reading more.

  33. Mike Jung says:

    There are many conflicting opinions being expressed about this situation, and more than a few of them express dismay over the effects on and concern for the well-being of Vanessa Brantley-Newton, Ramin Ganeshram, and Andrea Davis Pinkney, while also stating objections to the portrayal of slavery in A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON. Clearly not everyone is seeing all of those opinions, which is revealing in and of itself, but it’s inaccurate to say nuance and complexity are lacking in this dialogue.

    It’s very interesting that people are talking about the decision to pull BIRTHDAY CAKE as a decision that was made not by Scholastic, but by critics of the book. I can honestly see how a person would reach that misguided conclusion, because it’s hard to doubt the notion that Scholastic’s decision was influenced by public opinion. It IS a misguided conclusion, however. Scholastic is a hugely powerful entity that could easily have made a different choice in this situation. As others have noted, leaving a picture book that’s enveloped by controversy on the market is hardly without precedent.

    One of the complexities of the situations is that this situation can, of course, be perceived both as an exercise in maintaining the status quo (immense corporate entity throws creative professionals who are women of color under the bus) AND a repudiation of the status quo (choosing not to ignore publicly stated concerns about perpetuating a long-standing narrative with roots in historical oppression of the worst kind). I believe we can object to the former while also marking progress in the latter. People are, in fact.

    I find it impossible to perceive Scholastic’s decision as an unambiguously positive or negative thing, but there’s one way in which I believe it IS unambiguously positive. I’m still at an early point on the learning curve with regard to how power is amassed and deployed in these situations, but I have a better sense of it than I used to. Dismissal is an act of power. It is an act of power to dismiss societal dynamics that leave some individuals and communities untouched even as they wreak havoc on others. It is an act of power to dismiss the idea that a children’s book can, deliberately or not, play a role in an age-old process of massaging and blunting internalized perceptions of injustice. It is an act of power to hear dissenting voices, voices that have always been with us, and dismiss them out of hand.

    I’ve been experiencing deeply conflicted feelings about this whole situation, as I know many, many other people have been. There are no winners here. But I’ve also found it impossible to ignore the people who’ve been voicing their objections to A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON, because they include people of profound intellect, immeasurable dignity, unquestionable conviction, and a deep understanding of historical tectonics and social complexity that I suspect I’ll never even come close to matching. Their words have shaken me, moved me, and changed me. Infinitesimal changes, to be sure, but meaningful changes. Changes borne of hearing voices that I now understand to be no less worthy or vital than my own.

    I’ve chosen to believe that despite all of the complexities involved and all of the entirely valid reasons to question the motives of any corporate behemoth’s decisions, Scholastic made this choice at least partly with the intent to remedy a mistake. I’ve decided that the same voices which have affected me so deeply were also heard by Scholastic, clearly, honestly, and thoughtfully.

    Some of us might believe saying that makes me naive or even biased, and well, I can’t negate that possibility. I don’t think so, however. I think voices are being heard, maybe in a way that they’ve never been heard before (at least in our industry), and that is good. That is positive. That is progress.

  34. Nina lindsay says:

    Roger, do you really dispute that there is harm done in the obfuscation of the effects of slavery on Black people today, and that Black people who speak against it “are themselves projecting–they think children SHOULD be hurt by a given book because that book does not accord with the objector’s religious, social, or political mores. As we all know, this behavior is no respecter of race, gender, or political affiliation–everybody does it. In some cases it is sincere and sometimes it is cynical, but to my mind it is linked less to actual evidence of harm than it is to an adult’s desire that the world be seen by all in a particular way.” Do you really believe there is no evidence of harm?

  35. On the question of A Birthday Cake for George Washington, I agree with Mike about all of the complexities– and because of that have felt like this is a time and place for me to listen. (And have appreciated those who’ve been taking the time and energy to speak from their knowledge and experiences.)

    When it comes to the overarching question of harm, though– it’s frustrating to think of the number of times people have hashed through the same issues here on this blog (do you call it a blog?) The same arguments and counter-arguments have circled again and again, and what strikes me most is that neither people sharing their lived experiences nor hard scientific data seem to have much effect. I know I’ve cited this study before.
    And I know Debbie has shared this. And people have discussed the research linking the content of children’s books with racial reading gaps, or cited Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’ ongoing research into students’ responses to children’s books about slavery… I agree that the particulars surrounding individual books are often complicated, and in this case especially so. But to flat out reject the notion of harm (and the intricate relationships between individual books and those larger contexts) despite all evidence is something I still can’t really comprehend.

  36. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Nina, I believe inaccurate (whether for reasons of racism or sentimentality or plain ignorance) thinking about slavery (and history in general) can be harmful to our culture in general and individuals or classes of individuals in particular. What I don’t believe is that a book–any book–can be held responsible for this. A book can confirm or challenge an individual’s thinking and thus affect his or her behavior, but it’s not possible to say which book is going to do what to whom when. And these two books in particular have certainly evoked different responses among readers (as well as people who haven’t opened either one!).

    The discussions about A FINE DESSERT and A BIRTHDAY CAKE have often been educational for me, and they are absolutely necessary. But there are two things about them that have bothered me. They have been frequently ahistorical, disregarding not only the many (not enough?) books about slavery for children and the parallel discussion, going on since at least the 1960s, about how best to present the subject to young readers. And these discussions have too often resorted to a think-of-the-children rhetorical strategy that you would think The Simpsons’ Mrs. Lovejoy had discredited by now.

    Sarah, let me read those links and get back to you. But, yeah, this is a blog, unless we’re calling them something else these days.

  37. The discussions aren’t, at their heart, about individual books, though. (And this is the miscommunication that seems to happen so frequently.) They are about the larger context of children’s literature and children’s publishing of which the books are a piece.

    Regarding the discussions being ahistorical when it comes to both existing books about slavery, and existing conversations about how best to depict it– this seems selective, given that those at the forefront are people who’ve studied each. (Debbie has a round-up of links on her page that include discussions of just those things.) And again, on the question of harm, characterizing it as a knee-jerk concern over individual titles that caring people all read differently is to create a straw man, and sidestep the real issues under discussion.

  38. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Sarah, you frequently come on here to accuse me of not addressing the “real issues under discussion” yet make only the vaguest of gestures–“the larger context of children’s literature and children’s publishing of which the books are a piece”–toward what those issues might be. And to say that the discussions “aren’t about individual books” is to indulge in a bit of selectivity yourself! I see a discussion that is all over the place–informed, helpful, maddening, all at once–and have chosen my particular entree into it. I’m sorry you don’t think I have anything worthwhile to contribute, but there it is.

  39. Roger– my comments here aren’t meant to be any kind of individual accusation either (though I know personal comments have definitely been part of the mix out there.) As it relates to the question of harm, the “larger issues” are ones referenced both in other comments, and in the links above, and in many previous discussions about the effects of (mis)representation… I’m not trying to be vague; it just feels like this is ground that’s been covered. In terms of the larger issues in regards to these particular books and depictions of slavery, in all honesty I don’t think they’re mine to speak to. But do want to point to people at the center of the discussion whose voices and perspectives often seem to get lost in these summaries. Again, Debbie has many links on her page. Will just highlight one:

  40. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Pax. I agree that Ebony Thomas’s storify is really smart and useful and all good things. Did you see the photo she put on Facebook of a dozen or so good children’s books about slavery? It’s not only an excellent bibliography in graphic format but would be a terrific poster.

    I saw over on Reading While White that some people are framing the controversy as a censorship issue. And while I readily acknowledge that intellectual freedom is a drum I bang on repeatedly, I don’t see the way either of the two books has fared as a censorship issue. Just so we’re clear!

  41. The premise that certain classes of people cannot approach literature as people the world over always have, sifting through it for good and for ill, but instead must be fed a necessarily small, special diet of books, according to a narrow vision of what they can tolerate or apprehend without harm; or, in the same vein, must be “treated” to an ever-more-literal representation of someone they can “relate” to, because they are incapable of finding their literary kindred on their own in more nuanced ways, or God forbid looking to books for something larger than themselves or their circumstances (I am astonished at the realization, gleaned from children’s lit blogs this fall, that, apparently, I was alone as a child in reading for this latter reason) – is painfully condescending and anti-humanist. Lest you all feel too comfortable on your moral perch, please know: I would be horrified to say, or even intimate, anything so cruel and demeaning to anyone – even if it is true.

  42. Nina Lindsay says:

    Roger, thanks for the clarification; I do think that your statement I quoted, from discredits the objections against A Cake For George Washington by suggesting that those who object to it (having read and studied and evaluated the book carefully, and considered readership) are “projecting” and have “no evidence of harm.” That is your point, correct? Mine is that there IS evidence of harm in the way slavery is portrayed in children’s books in general, and so I value assessments of any individual title that comes out, including “This is unsuitable.”

    That Scholastic chose to withdraw this is a different matter; I don’t think it’s fair to blame the book’s critics as this recall is nearly unprecedented. As to respect for readers, I’m more compelled by those who point out that the book does not respect them by eliding crucial information, than my your argument that the intended audience would be fully aware of the controversy because they follow our twitter feeds.

    Finally, do you really think this book is NOT part of the children’s-literature record? Come on. This one’s going in the history books, we all know it. And there are copies out there that I’m hoping find their way into research collections. (I’ll take one!) That is, indeed, how books get better.

  43. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Nina, I am not objecting to the analysis of these books as distortions of history (although I think a stronger case can be made for that with the Ganeshram than with the Jenkins); what I’m questioning is whether either of them will “hurt” a reader. You say yes, I say we can’t know. I do not believe that potential for psychological harm is a legitimate criterion for book selection. As Sarah has noted, we won’t be ending that debate anytime soon.

    I don’t blame the critics at all for Scholastic’s decision; whatever we think of their choice to pull the book, it’s all on them. I’ll reiterate that I don’t think that choice is censorship.

    Of course this will go into the history books! But I wish it could do so after we got to observe its long tail of reaction, that’s all. (If there were to be one; I was told by a source that sales for a Fine Dessert are already dead.) A Birthday Cake for George Washington was only available for sale for about two weeks, and as Elissa pointed out above, it seems mathematically impossible that the thousands of people who petitioned for its withdrawal had actually seen it. (We have two f&gs of the title but I doubt we will see a finished book.)

  44. Christine Heppermann says:

    I truly believe that the fundamental way to do less harm to child readers is to welcome more authors, illustrators, and editors of color into the field of children’s book publishing, so they have the power to share stories that are meaningful to them. Except, in the case of ABCFGW, Scholastic seems to be saying that they are only allowed that power so long as they publish the right kind of books, i.e books no one finds objectionable–which is nearly impossible, since every book is going to offend someone.
    That message, the one Scholastic’s decision to pull the book sent, is what disheartens me.

  45. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Except, Chris, as I think Nina pointed out on RWW, Scholastic’s actions really are unprecedented, not the latest in a long line of such at that publisher or in general, so it’s hard for me to project this as something to worry about in the future. I guess we shall see.

    We periodically see books, like the aforementioned McKissack or, say, Courtni Wright’s Jumping the Broom, that attempt to show moments of pride or happiness among enslaved people, not as a way to show the bright side of slavery but to illustrate to children that the enslaved were people like ourselves who found some joy despite the horror of their circumstances. I haven’t talked to anyone at Scholastic about the thinking behind A Birthday Cake, but I am guessing there was a similar impulse at work. Such books have never been published without controversy, but thanks to social media, the controversy can flare up very quickly and spread widely, and it includes in the conversation many people who had previously not been a part of dialogue that had mainly included librarians and teachers and publishers. I see both benefits and pitfalls here.

  46. Anonymous A says:

    @Sarah, if you’re frustrated by repeated conversations where you feel that you are making points that others don’t accept, and that others are making points that you find inapposite or wrong, imagine how God in heaven must feel. Or those poor social scientists and historians who have different paradigmatic approaches to things like human psychology and sociology. Want frustration? Be a cognitive behaviorist at an psychoanalytic conference, even armed with one of the many studies “proving” the efficacy of CBT. Or, vice-versa, with a study about hos psychoanalysis makes for long-lasting change.

    One thing to keep in mind about all social science research, including the study you cite: it replicates astonishingly poorly, and is subject to multifactorial confounds. The effects reported are often frustratingly (there’s that word again!) minimal. The Martins and Harrison (2012) study you cite admits that television exposure is, at best, a weak-to-moderate predictor of the effects you mention: “A look at the effect size, as estimated by the change in points to the fact that television viewing is a weak-to-moderate predictor of lowered self-esteem for White girls, Black girls, and Black boys, and a weak-to-moderate predictor of self-esteem in White Boys” (p. 351).

    Weak-to-moderate correlation coefficients in this case aren’t all that helpful, especially when the investigators are looking at raw viewing time, and not a breakdown of what is watched.

    Let the discussion move forward. All the good ones do.

  47. Roger, I’ve been thinking about BASEBALL SAVED US, which shows kids having fun in an internment camp. Within the pages of the book it makes perfect sense; I see on that people now do take offense at the idea of kids having moments of joy while interred.

  48. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    That’s interesting, Kurtis–novels set in the WWII US internment camps that I’ve read do have moments where the kids have fun. Which I suppose they did, and while just as I suppose some slaves did as well, I am not about to suggest that the experiences were parallel. Novels set in the nazi camps, no–but I can remember some of those tinged with so much sentimentality that I was morally offended.

  49. Anne Ursu says:

    Worth keeping in mind, too, that “librarians, teachers, and publishers” (and also, alas, writers and illustrators) are a very white group of people, and keeping the conversation to that group hasn’t gotten us very far in terms of making books that serve all kids.

    I also wonder if the way children’s librarians are trained has changed as the conversation has opened up. Roger, the method you speak of seems to me one almost guaranteed to reinforce the status quo, when it’s the status quo who can ultimately make up its mind on what is or isn’t proven. Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen includes a social justice and children’s literature class in her MLS course at St. Catherine’s University, and I would imagine has a very different outlook on the way we talk about what constitutes harm and how we establish it. I’d be curious what other librarians think.

    Anyone who has not watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Dangers of a Single Story, I highly recommend it.

  50. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I’d be curious to know that too, Anne. C’mon, youngsters, speak up!

  51. Roger,
    I will only speak to your point about whether or not 1 particular book can harm a child. I put this up on another blog before and my point was totally missed. Hopefully, I will be clearer here:
    When I was in elementary school, my teacher read the book The Five Chinese Brothers to the entire class. Everyone loved the story, including me, until recess. I was hounded and harassed and mocked and bullied. Kids ran after me pulling their eyes into slits. In art class, a boy sitting next to me painted my arm mustard yellow because I was not the right color for a chinaman. To this day, I shudder at the mere thought of that book.
    Yes, books can be incredibly harmful.

  52. Speaking my mind says:

    Roger and other people complaining that one book that helps to erase the ugliness of slavery was pulled:

    You dishearten me. How many times do we have to say over and over that each book is part of a larger picture and message? I notice it is mostly white people getting angry about the book being pulled. Why? Can you not hear when we people of color say it’s damaging? Can’t you just listen for once?

    If you can’t, why do you insist on talking? Especially you, Roger. You have a great responsibility with this job, and you need to understand your refusal to listen is harming a lot of people.

    For those of you who think “someone will always be offended,” you’re missing the point by a mile. It’s not about being offended. It’s about disingenuous portrayals of history adding to a deeply entrenched cultural narrative about slavery and internment camps that says these institutions were not so bad, not really, not when you can find something to smile about. They erase history as it was to ease white guilt. And that is a huge problem.

    So no, it’s not just one book. It’s not just about one author and her feelings. Please stop saying it is.

  53. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Ellen, that’s horrible and I’m sorry it happened to you. But let me give you another example from when i was in the fourth grade. I had ordered Dorothy Sterling’s Mary Jane (a children’s novel about a “Negro” girl integrating a white high school) from the Scholastic book club. It was my teacher’s practice to read off the name of each student and the books that had ordered as we went up to her desk to retrieve them. I can still remember the way she smothered her laugh when my turn came, and the taunting of being called a queer and a sissy that followed from the other kids at recess. Just because the book was about a girl.

    I know the history of The Five Chinese Brothers, and obviously Sterling’s novel never encountered the same kind of criticism. But I believe that in both your case and mine, the particular harm we suffered was not caused by a book but by our peers (and my teacher). I’m not denying the other issues that have dogged Bishop’s book for decades, but I think you and I experienced harm at the hands of other people, not from a book.

  54. Anonymous A says:

    After reading @Ellen and @Roger, the only thing I can think of where a book is harmful is how the Nazis produced anti-Semitic picture books for children as part of their overall campaign against that people. For example:

    These books had to be influential in a bad way with children. The harm is in the indoctrination. Some might call A FINE DESSERT and BIRTHDAY CAKE indoctrination in dominant culture values differing only in degree from this propaganda. I don’t see those books that way.

  55. Roger, your most recent comment (and your overall point, for that matter) seems to be pretty comparable to the argument that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Sure, guns (and books) obviously don’t have the ability to do harm entirely on their own, but if we were to make guns less accessible, there would be less damage done by gun violence. This obviously isn’t a perfect metaphor–I can see some flaws myself–so before you jump on my argument, please don’t think I’m all for “book banning” and some of the nonsense that has been conflated in other spaces with Scholastic’s actions. But books are powerful weapons (so says the Doctor, anyway), and to separate out books as if they have no interaction with humans seems perplexing and short-sighted to me. I think our community is having two conversations at once: 1) Should this book have existed at all? (No) and 2) Now that it exists in a very limited quantity, how should gatekeepers interact with it? (This one’s more complicated.)

  56. Speaking my mind says:

    Okay, Roger, after seeing your response to Ellen Oh, it’s clear now you’re being willfully obtuse. I don’t even know what else to say, since you ignored my earlier question about listening instead of talking.

  57. Roger, the parallel you drew between Ellen’s experience and yours isn’t fair. Both of your experiences were horrible and oppressive. In Ellen’s case, though, 5 Chinese Brothers comes from, and reinforces, a worldview that says “it’s OK to stereotype and dehumanize Asian people”. Does Mary Jane come from a worldview in which it’s OK to torment boys who express affinity for things generally considered effeminate? I haven’t read it, but from your story, even if it did, the kids in your class wouldn’t have known it.

    But really, Marilyn Nelson says this best:

    How I Discovered Poetry
    It was like soul-kissing, the way the words
    filled my mouth as Mrs. Purdy read from her desk.
    All the other kids zoned an hour ahead to 3:15,
    but Mrs. Purdy and I wandered lonely as clouds borne
    by a breeze off Mount Parnassus. She must have seen
    the darkest eyes in the room brim: The next day
    she gave me a poem she’d chosen especially for me
    to read to the all except for me white class.
    She smiled when she told me to read it, smiled harder,
    said oh yes I could. She smiled harder and harder
    until I stood and opened my mouth to banjo playing
    darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats. When I finished
    my classmates stared at the floor. We walked silent
    to the buses, awed by the power of words.

  58. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    Kazia, I’m no fan of this book. At all. But a book that I *AM* a big fan of is The Hired Girl (who’s heard of it? 🙂 Debbie Reese, Sarah Hamburg, and other smart, thoughtful children’s book people are NOT a fan because they see it as culturally insensitive. I, and others, read it 180-degrees differently as subversive, even radically so. We have talked about it A LOT. We have cited textual evidence. We disagree. It seems like the way that book “interacts with humans” is impossible to quantify (*especially* those humans who have not themselves read the book under consideration but feel outraged by the description of it). I think there are cases where it’s more clear cut — I was not kidding in the comment above! There IS a Confederate Alphabet Book, people — but many more instances are complicated, which is what these conversations are for. (And, I’m sorry, I’m calling BS on you basically calling Roger a gun-nut, then ducking… 🙂

  59. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Speaking My Mind, you seem to equate “listening” to “agreeing with everything I say.” I am listening–reading–this discussion as it takes place in many venues and from many points of view. As for the further points in your post, I assumed they were not addressed to me as they are making points I have not disputed. As I think my original post reveals, I am not all that interested in protecting authors’ feelings.

    But if your point is what Allie is saying–that Five Chinese Brothers is a racist book while Mary Jane isn’t–I’d direct you to Ellen’s statement that “everyone loved the story, including me, until recess.” I submit that what happened to Ellen, while worse, is very much like what happened to me. It wasn’t necessarily the particulars of that book that caused the other kids to assault her. Anyone who has ever been the class fat kid (raises hand) knows that even the presence of the word “fat” in a benign story can set the bullies off. Again, I am not here disputing the racist reputation of that book, only suggesting that there are no books that don’t suggest themselves as a weapon to those looking for one. (There’s your gun analogy, Kazia.) Your example of the Nelson poem, Allie, is no more parallel to Ellen’s story than is my own. The speaker of that poem clearly does not want to read the poem assigned by the teacher, a very different situation from Ellen saying she loved the story her teacher was reading.

  60. “It wasn’t necessarily the particulars of that book that caused the other kids to assault her.” Read what Ellen wrote again. The part where the boy paints her skin. I seriously can’t fathom how you draw the conclusion above after reading her account.

    And Roger, I wasn’t drawing any direct parallel with my Nelson example. I was providing another, different example of a person saying “this book harmed me”. You, on the other hand, were actively drawing a parallel between your experience and Ellen’s. I’m trying to say that that action itself–the act of drawing the parallel–is wrong. And then you used the faulty parallel to dismiss Ellen’s experience.

  61. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I’m not dismissing Ellen’s experience at all–she suffered a racist attack. Why are you dismissing the fact that she had enjoyed the book?

    And if I accept your premise–I don’t, but for argument’s sake–that this particular title caused the attack on Ellen–what course of action do you recommend?

  62. Your tone was respectful but it was a dismissal because she was saying “this book harmed me” and you were saying “no it didn’t I know about your experience better than you do.”

    Not looking for a course of action. We are SO not there yet. Looking for a conversation in which people of color can say “ouch” without white people (like you and me) responding “you have no right to say ouch” or, in your case, “allow me to tell you about the pain you experience and from whence it comes.” The least you could have done is ASKED Ellen “do you really think it came from the book, and not the kids?” but instead you told her story for her.

  63. Alec Chunn says:

    “I also wonder if the way children’s librarians are trained has changed as the conversation has opened up.”

    Rather than speak up on behalf of my colleagues, the “youngster” children’s librarians entering the workforce, I’ll share a bit about my library training to offer one answer to Anne and Roger’s questions re: current children’s librarian training. At Simmons, we did not have a course as incredible as Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen’s (sign me up, please!). Those of us in the dual degree program, however, spent our capstone discussing how our social identities intertwined with our critical positionalities—an incredible course which, if we’re being honest, could have been made even better if those in the program were more diverse. I do not think this course was enough, even if it did open up an important conversation as we navigated our critical and professional identities and went off to join the workforce.

    To be honest, I sometimes find it difficult to separate what I learned from faculty and what I learned from my colleagues. Those with whom I became closest are those who, like me, see libraries as a necessary site of social justice work. Thus, if our courses weren’t teaching us what we needed to know on the subject, we turned to blogs, scholarship, and each other to help us talk about all the things we wished our program had.

    Don’t get me wrong: Simmons is an excellent school and I wouldn’t trade my time there for anything. It’s worth noting that I also graduated last summer, and I’m sure that the library program I attended won’t look the same as the one that even the current students are enrolled in now. It’s also worth noting that we “youngsters” are listening. We’re paying attention to the industry–especially the gaffes of even the most respected in the field. That’s a form of training in and of itself.

  64. Stacy Collins says:

    1) Elissa, Kazia was not calling Roger a gun-nut. She drew a comparison between his argument as she understands it and the well-worn absurdity of “guns don’t kill people” (as if a person with a gun is ever less lethal than a person without one). A book with an overtly oppressive text/image/message is harmful whether in the hands of a child reader, an adult mediator, or simply on a shelf proclaiming the silent approval of the publishing industry and at least one bookstore buyer.

    2) There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding (and I say this in general not about specific posts here) about how racism works. I know this is a reiteration for some (hopefully most) of you, but here goes: racism is a system that is always at work–it never sleeps, its effects in a book are not eliminated by an author/illustrator’s research and insistence on authenticity, and one of its key oppressive functions is to deny its existence and silence the voices of those it oppresses. It is a deeply embedded, default system, meaning it always takes more effort, more attention, more sensitivity to be antiracist than it does to be racist. And any person (white or nonwhite, well-meaning or categorically evil) can be an agent of racism’s oppression, particularly from within white-dominated systems like the publishing industry or higher education or the police force, etc.

    I do not think the author, illustrator, agent(s), editor, publisher, book designer, or any individual involved with the creation and production of A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON are intentional racists seeking to harm black youth and any youth of color–quite the opposite. But I do think they are operating within a racist system that privileges white voices and perspectives, which not only led to the creation of a book supposedly about the culinary triumph(s) of a black man that nonetheless cannot manage to do so without also celebrating (and giving top billing to) the white man who enslaved him, but also allows such a book to cross who knows how many desks without question, or worse, with justification. And even more tellingly, this is the second recent picture book with curiously cheery enslaved humans to have been sent out into the world by the children’s publishing industry–its recall notwithstanding.

    To say such images in a book lacking narrative irony/critique are not racist–that they do not do the work of racism that aims to downplay the oppression of people of color by insisting they had moments of happiness during their enslavement and that those moments not only were untainted by but even outweighed the constant threat of possible physical violence or of being sold or of simply disappearing at the whim of white power–is, I think, to dangerously misunderstand how constantly and completely racism as a system functions. Such images, whether they fill a book or only occur on one page, do not need a bully or some mediator’s intention of causing harm to do their harmful work by reinforcing the privilege and oppression inherent to racism.

    3) What Alec said.

  65. I’m realizing now that I spoke for Ellen when I used the term “dismiss” above. I should have kept my response grounded in what Roger had actually said, and instead I editorialized. It’s Ellen’s place, not mine, to say whether she felt dismissed. I’m sorry.

  66. Mike Jung says:

    DR. SARAH PARK DAHLEN FTW! #helpfulcomment

  67. Thank you for sharing that, Ellen.

    Roger, I remember you once saying that this column is one of the things you are most proud to have published.

  68. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    Stacy, I agree with much of what you say — and eloquently. And, again, I am not defending this book. And I know it’s not very New Critical of me. But! I’m finding it hard to reconcile with the creative team being women of color — not because people of color couldn’t possibly produce a racist book, but because this is someone who has spent her career working within and pushing against exactly the system you’re describing. If there’s anyone on this earth who wouldn’t need a tutorial on institutional racism in publishing, I’d think it would be this woman:

  69. Anonymous A says:

    The cycle, from those who call for “conversation”on X (say, A BIRTHDAY CAKE etc.) but then can’t stand what happens when there is actual engagement without actual agreement, is nearly as bemusing as it is tiresome.

    Unwilling to counter on an equal basis on the substance of X, there is an accusation that any opinion offered by a white person comes from white privilege, whether that privilege is conscious or unconscious. Then, if the person continues to engage, he or she is bidden to be a better listener and also shut up and stop refuting about X.. After that, “studies” are trotted out that purport to support a taken position on X, though the studies tend not to be at all on point and have modest correlation coefficients and many confounding variables. This is followed by the observation that what is being discussed is not “X at all, but a much larger system of which X is only a small part or a symptom: if the larger system is not discussed, then there’s no reason to engage on X at all. Finally, offer no solution for the larger systemic issues, but again insist on a conversation.

    Rinse, and repeat.

    @Elissa, Amen. You make a point about the BIRTHDAY CAKE editor that has been made again and again over the last two weeks or so with one good response in substance. As Roger asked, “Think of Andrea Pinkney, an African American mother as well as an editor–does she believe A Birthday Cake for George Washington will hurt black children? I’m guessing not.” The only answer he got to that was the cycle commencing above. Still, it’s worth asking one more time. @Stacy or anyone else who’d take it on, Andrea Pinkney, with her well-deserved Coretta Scott King award, is an agent of racism’s oppression? Really? Really really?

  70. Anonymous A, I’ve read somewhere that if one is tired of cyclical arguments where others continue to disagree in the same ways, one need only imagine God’s perspective.

    I do have to ask: why all of the anonymity? It seems like it’s been steadily increasing across the kidlit blogosphere. Is there a reason people don’t want to put their names to their thoughts on coefficients?

  71. You, Most Recent Anonymous Commenter, seem to have taken my words a little askew. I do not think Andrea Davis Pinkney is a racist (I shudder at even seeing those words strung so closely together), nor do I think she is a willing or intentional agent of oppression. (Also to clarify, an “agent of oppression” is not like a high-skilled assassin–Andrea Pinkney is not the Manchurian candidate of racism.)

    However, children’s publishing is a white- (privilege-) dominated industry, and as such, it is positioned to benefit from racism, which, in our culture, is a self-reinforcing system that benefits whites and disadvantages non-whites. In publishing, as I’m sure you know, racism takes a slew of different forms, including the oft-lamented lack of books featuring non-white MCs– that is publishing privileges whiteness by producing far more books in which white children can see themselves than books in which children of color can see themselves. Andrea Pinkney and countless other people of color have worked tirelessly to resist this systemic racism from inside the publishing world, but–and this is the important bit–publishing still remains a white dominated industry that by default (not by effort, not by malice, not even by choice, but by default) benefits from and perpetuates oppression through racism. Operating within the industry, then (and again, by default) positions a person to be an agent of oppression, and without constant vigilance, they will be. You (white or non-white human) either fight racism with your actions or you let it happen with your (in)actions–that’s how the system works even if it is to your own disadvantage.

    But back to Andrea. Constant vigilance against racism in children’s publishing appears to be her general state of being. Her past work is magnificent, though–and this is another important bit–it does not make future oppression on her part impossible. She is human after all. That said, I’m with Elissa here–I am utterly baffled that Andrea Davis Pinkney, in all her well-deserved glory, is at all connected with this glaringly problematic book. The creative team seems to have made a grave misstep, even as they seem incapable of doing so, and attempts to reconcile the wonderful people with the not-so-awesome product seem to be part of the main fuel of discussion–therefore not quite the “rinse and repeat” conversation as you glibly call it.

  72. Anonymously Yours says:

    Maybe instead of further conversating one of you who’s a writer could draft a statement for children’s book writers to sign, in which they’d promise to sternly depict people of the past in one mood? I cribbed an opening sentence from somewhere or other:

    “The salvation of the young mind and the freeing of it from the noxious reactionary beliefs of their parents is one of the highest aims of the proletarian government.”

  73. In defense of those involved in the creation, publication, and then withdrawal of this particular book, I’d like to note that none of us can possibly know what happened behind the scenes, all the way back from when the book was being pitched to last Sunday when it was withdrawn; we can only speculate given the information available. But having been in situations more than once when I had to publicly support a decision by an institution I was part of while staying silent about my profound disagreement with it, I have tremendous sympathy for the players in this case, the visible ones most of all (as there are invisible ones as well ). Perhaps that makes me out to be a coward, but I would guess there are others who have been in such situations.

  74. Occam’s razor: smart, well-educated, compassionate people can have different opinions about the same book.

  75. Anonymous A says:

    @Sarah, I know you follow Fuse #8, and I shared some feelings there about anonymous posting. Basically, the problem for me is the Twitter mob. I’ve seen it in operation against both Diversity Jedi and those who take different positions. I don’t want my children to read anything like that directed at me or anyone else. Talk about harmful and hurtful reading for children!

    Those who are willing to engage under their own names have my admiration, yourself included. So do those who don’t. I get both approaches.

    One good question deserves another: What is your take on Roger’s question about Andrea Pinkney, “Think of Andrea Pinkney, an African American mother as well as an editor–does she believe A Birthday Cake for George Washington will hurt black children? I’m guessing not.” What’s your reading on her defense of her and her author/illustrator’s work?

    What did you think about

  76. Anonymous A– to answer your question: as I said I don’t think that’s mine to speak to, or that my take/opinion really has a place here. Will point back up to Stacy and other commenters above, though.

  77. Sheila Welch says:

    My copy of A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON just arrived in the mail today. Let the bidding begin!!

    Just kidding. I’m keeping it.

    I’ve been following the comments on the Internet and talking to my daughter who’s a middle -school librarian. The next step is to ask my sons (devoted Black fathers) what they think of this book and whether they would approve or disapprove of it as a read aloud to preschoolers. I’ll also be interested to know if any of them had heard of Hercules before seeing this book. I hope the discussion here will continue a few more days.

  78. Never Thought I'd Be Reduced To Anonymous Posting in this Community says:

    I cannot write a story guaranteed to never hurt a reader’s feelings.
    I cannot draw an image that will be interpreted the same way by everyone.
    If the presence of a book on a shelf is a danger to some child, somewhere, there will be no books on the shelves for any child, anywhere.
    You cannot grow a garden by just pulling out the weeds.

  79. What I would like is if all this energy focused on the discussion of this one book–which, let’s face it, if left alone would have sold maybe 10,000 copies–could be opened up to include the vast insults of the school textbook industry, (one example among many, actually). I suspect many of you are aware of the Texas Board of Education’s whitewash of slavery this past year (among a long history of sins by that board). Those books reach FIVE MILLION students. And they are dangerous. While we argue among ourselves and sustain hurts from each other, there are students learning that slavery basically didn’t exist. Two articles:

    I think all of us who have posted here really agree more than we disagree. We should organize outwards. Want to change a racist society? Vote for the good guys.

  80. Actually, beyond the semantic infelicity, the textbook made a perhaps even more significant error (if we’re interested in numbers as well as words) in stating that millions of slaves were brought to the southern United States as part of the Atlantic slave trade. The number was actually 388,000.

    The millions went to South America and the Caribbean.
    Pace leda, I’d say the erroneous statement very much drives home the reality of slavery, and it reinforces the orthodoxy that it was a peculiarly American (southern) practice, which surely all endorse.

  81. And another viewpoint to throw into the mix. This from the National Coalition Against Censorship. FYI.

  82. Leda–

    Several people who’ve been at the forefront of critiquing these representations of slavery in children’s books have also led efforts to address misrepresentations (read: lies) in textbooks. There’s a discussion of the intersection of the two, and connections to other issues like reparations and the Black Lives Matter movement more generally, in this podcast:

    As I’ve said, think the dynamics surrounding this book (and Scholastic’s responses) are particularly complicated, and there are pieces that make me uneasy. At bottom, though, this is the industry we work in– and given the deeply entrenched institutional problems exemplified in recent books and discussions (which have existed for decades, and which people have worked to address for just as long) I think energy that goes toward bettering the field we all care about is well spent. It’s maybe easier for some of us to look at a place like Hollywood and point fingers, than it is look in the mirror and see the finger pointing back at us. But if we agree that children’s books matter, then doing this work matters, too.

  83. A quick response to Leda regarding textbooks—Native parents in Alaska objected to books in McGraw Hill’s Reading Wonders. Details here:

  84. Thanks to Roger, Debbie, and Sarah for their responses!

  85. Thanks for the article and for hosting the conversation.
    I am struck by the expression “left swinging in the wind” in several of the first batch of comments. I think that equating professional discomfort to being lynched is in bad taste – especially within a conversation about whether or not the kid lit industry is appropriately sensitive to the Black experience/ human dignity.

  86. Another One For Anonymity says:

    I’m a person of color.

    I will never allow a person to tell me what I or my children can or cannot read. I will never allow a person to tell me what I or my children should or should not like. I and my children do not need to be “protected” by others from books them deem harmful.

    I want all books to be out there. I will decide whether or not to read them or buy them. If a book upsets or confuses my child, I alone will discuss with my child how she or he feels about it. I will not allow others to dictate to me or my children how we should or should not respond to any book.

    I would liked to have seen A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON, in order to form my own opinion. If that opinion had been good, I would not allow anyone to tell me I’m misguided. Unfortunately, I will probably never see a copy of A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON.

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